At one point last season, Jim Baron needed a chemistry degree more than a coach's whistle. Baron's third Rhode Island team shot out to a 12-3 start with wins over Providence, Miami, Charlotte and Vermont. All was right in the Rams' world. Dawan Robinson had emerged as a big-time scorer, complemented by the slashing scoring skills of Brian Woodward and Dustin Hellenga. The rest of the roster thrived on large doses of hustle and aggressiveness, making Rhody look like a team capable of an NCAA tournament bid.
But a home loss to Xavier began a four-game slide that Baron could not shake his team out of. The Rams would lose 10 of their next 17 games to fall out of NCAA contention. Nevertheless, by the end of the season, the team was playing most every A-10 squad tough. That push landed URI in the NIT for the second straight season and kept Baron's rebuilding process on target.
"It's a process, and we've taken steps since we got here three years ago," Baron said. "That's not to say you keep moving up and up, but we have some things in place now, and we need to keep improving and getting better."
The mix of talent Baron will roll out in year four is an intriguing one. Woodward has graduated and Hellenga mysteriously dropped out of school in the spring and forfeited his final year of eligibility. That leaves Robinson, a third-team all-league guard, as the only experienced scorer. Baron would like to play the senior off the ball more with touted frosh Jon Lucky or reserve Tyrese Sullivan seeing time at the point.
The search for another consistent scorer is key. The top candidate should be forward Scott Hazelton, a one-time high school All-American who averaged 6.1 points on 42 percent shooting in his first year as a Ram. Baron loves to roll waves of players at opponents, and tough wing players Jamaal Wise, Terrence Mack and Randy Brooks all bring game experience into this season. Freshman Will Daniels averaged over 30 points per game in high school and will play significant minutes if he can add punch.
The Rams won 20 games in each of the last two seasons with very little scoring inside. If J.R. Moore, Marcel Momplaisir and Jon Clark improve at all in that area, Baron's chemistry tests will only get easier.